Towards the end of his book, Archaeological Theory (see previous post), Matthew Johnson tackles the question of whether an “interpretative” approach to archaeology – one which is conscious of the cultural and political presuppositions that influence our understanding of “objective” data, and of the contingent and inconclusive nature of our interpretations – leads to a “relativism” in which the data can be treated with “cavalier disregard” (pp.174f.).
He rejects this, arguing that:
…few would disagree that we are unavoidably influenced by our social and political circumstances, and that “raw data” do not exist in any unproblematic or unbiased way. Conversely, few would disagree that the data are important, and that at the very least they form a network of resistance to the interpretations we wish to put on them. Most of us would say that this network of resistance is very strong, and that our methods should try to strengthen it.
I love that concept of a “network of resistance”, and think it provides a helpful basis to understand the tension between individual interpretation and inherited tradition that I referred to in an earlier post.
Rather than taking refuge in “the plain word of Scripture” – effectively a “positivist” approach which refuses to acknowledge that what seems “plain” to us may be determined largely by our “social and political circumstances” – on the one hand or “the magisterium of the church” on the other, it may be helpful to think in terms of “networks of resistance”.
Each of us as individuals will bring our own interpretations and understandings to the Bible. However, the “data” of Scripture form a “network of resistance” to those interpretations. We are constrained by that network from just believing what we want to believe, and often our interpretations will have to yield to the resistance they encounter. For example, an interpretation that sees the resurrection of Jesus as a spiritual experience in the hearts of the apostles is going to encounter some pretty stiff resistance from the New Testament data.
But equally, our own individual interpretations are subject to a network of resistance formed by the church’s communal interpretation(s) of the Bible. This is a different network providing different forms of resistance – with doctrines such as that of the Trinity providing resistance barely any weaker than that of Scripture itself – but again it should constrain us from simply letting our own personal interpretations run riot.
And in each case, we should be acknowledging that “this network of resistance is very strong, and that our methods should try to strengthen it”, because this is a means by which we can keep our interpretations under closer surveillance than might otherwise be the case.